Lending an unbidden hand to one of the most revered figures of the Revolutionary era, historian Pauline Maier helped Thomas Jefferson step down off the pedestal with her best known work, “American Scripture.”
As she eased him back from mythological status, Dr. Maier showed how the ink of many editing pens flowed through Jefferson’s most enduring piece of writing, the Declaration of Independence. Though he produced what his contemporaries recognized as a “pretty good draft,” she wrote in her 1997 book, it was left to a committee and others in the Continental Congress to identify and eliminate “Jefferson’s more outlandish assertions and unnecessary words.”
“He was no Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from the hand of God,” Dr. Maier added, “but a man who had to prepare a written text with little time to waste and who, like others in similar circumstances, drew on earlier documents of his own and other people’s creation, acting within the rhetorical and ethical standards of his time, and producing a draft that revealed both splendid artistry and signs of haste.”
With “American Scripture,” historians say, she also helped show that at the time of its composition the Declaration was a secular document with the straightforward purpose of announcing independence, rather than the sacred text it became for so many in subsequent generations. “I don’t like all this civic religion,” she told the Globe in 1997. “It doesn’t make me mad, but it seems aberrant.”
Dr. Maier, who was the William R. Kenan Jr. professor of American history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and whose books illuminated the words and deeds of figures famous and obscure in 18th-century US history, died Aug. 12, a few months after being diagnosed with lung cancer that had spread. She was 75 and lived in Cambridge.
“I think she’s one of the most distinguished historians of American history,” said Gordon Wood, an emeritus professor of history at Brown University, adding that her books “ opened up new perceptions, new ideas.”
Her other books include “Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788,” in which she examined the rough road the 13 states traveled enroute to approving the Constitution. The book, which was published in 2010, was awarded the 2011 George Washington Book Prize of $50,000.
“This debate was not a secretive discussion among a few gentlemen in Independence Hall, but rather a bare-knuckles, open-air contest throughout the young United States,” Adam Goodheart, director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., which administers the prize, said in a statement in 2011. “Pauline Maier has captured it in all its political and intellectual vigor. And as she makes clear, the struggle over ratification could easily have turned out differently — and forever changed the course of American history.”
While researching the book, Dr. Maier pored over records from each state’s ratification convention. “She always preferred to work from primary source materials, from the original documents, and I think that’s what her real contribution is,” said Mary Beth Norton, the Mary Donlon Alger professor of American history at Cornell University. Norton added that Dr. Maier’s thorough scholarship has important implications for current political and legal debates over interpretations of the Constitution.
“She a historian’s historian, that’s how I would describe her,” Wood said. “She’s what the profession ought to be about.”
The first in her family to attend college, Pauline Rubbelke was the oldest of five children born to Irvin Rubbelke of St. Paul and the late Charlotte (Winterer) Rubbelke.
Dr. Maier grew up in Minnesota, where her father was a firefighter and later a credit union official. Accepted by Radcliffe College, she was able to attend because a judge in Minnesota helped raise money to cover her tuition.
While studying at Radcliffe she worked at The Crimson, Harvard University’s student newspaper, where she met Charles S. Maier, who is now a Harvard history professor.
“She was a very good-looking woman,” he recalled, and also very serious and smart. “She was climbing to the top of the heap, and I thought, ‘Well, this is someone attractive and interesting.’ I’m always amazed that she seemed to find the same thing on the other side.”
Their interests turned from journalism to academia and, after graduating in 1960, they studied on fellowships in England, where they married in Oxford. Both returned for graduate work at Harvard, where she studied with historian Bernard Bailyn and received a doctorate in 1968.
She began teaching at the University of Massachusetts Boston and moved to the University of Wisconsin before joining MIT’s faculty in the late 1970s.
The New York Times named “American Scripture” one of the 11 best books of 1997, placing her in the company that year of Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Cynthia Ozick, and John Updike. It also was a general nonfiction finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The following year, MIT presented Dr. Maier with the Killian award for outstanding achievement, which is given to one senior faculty member each year.
Along with her gifts for research and writing, Dr. Maier loved her time in the classroom and “had a real vocation for teaching and people who were not born to privilege,” her husband said.
“Often teaching is seen as a much less important aspect of a historian’s or a scholar’s résumé, but for her, teaching was immensely gratifying,” said their daughter Jessica, who teaches at Mount Holyoke College.
“She loved what she did, and I think that was a really wonderful example for all of us,” Jessica said of her siblings. “There was never this case that she was just our mom or just a historian or just a teacher. She had these various aspects of her life that she just poured herself into.”
By the same token, Jessica said, Dr. Maier did not stint as a mother or grandmother and “just loved us fiercely.”
After a stroke left Dr. Maier unable to speak in her last few months she began communicating by writing on a white board.
At one point, Jessica said, her mother wrote: “ ‘I have three wonderful children. I have written some books. I have planted flowers. I have baked bread. I have been blessed.’ And that kind of captures many different elements of her. It was so articulate and eloquent that I almost felt she had thought about it ahead of time, but she didn’t. That was the kind of eloquence she had.”
In addition to her husband, daughter, and father, Dr. Maier leaves another daughter, Andrea of Brussels; a son, Nicholas of Belmont; two sisters, Irene O’Ryan and Deborah O’Halloran, both of St. Paul; two brothers, Thomas Rubbelke of St. Paul and Gary Rubbelke of Willmar, Minn.; and six grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Tuesday in Story Chapel at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.
Years ago, the Maiers bought a house in Little Compton, R.I., where Dr. Maier filled the spacious grounds with perennials, dozens of tomato plants, and other vegetables.
“That was essentially a working farm down there,” Jessica said. “In the summer, she was out there from dawn until dusk. She was constantly upping the ante on how much she planted, and then just spreading the wealth because it was more than she and my dad could eat. It wasn’t just the life of the mind that she lived by any means.”